In August of 2005, Al Gore was supposed to travel to New Orleans to shoot a scene for an upcoming documentary on climate change when Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana. The 100-year storm, likely strengthened by warming waters across the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, naturally factored into the resulting movie, 2006's An Inconvenient Truth. But rather than include footage of the actual storm, the film's director Davis Guggenheim made a revealing, if curious, choice: He showed Gore cutting footage of Katrina on his laptop to insert in a slideshow presentation. It’s a document that Gore has been revising and reworking and rejiggering, not to mention presenting, continually since 1989, and it is at the heart of both An Inconvenient Truth and the newly released An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power.
Now, less than a month after the release of a follow-up documentary, another major American city is under water, a number of Caribbean islands have been decimated, and 6.5 million Floridians lost power. The devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey—the worst rainfall event ever recorded in in the continental United States, dropping nearly 52 inches of rain in a matter of days—and Hurricane Irma have been documented by cell phones and news cameras, shot from boats and helicopters. Some of those photos and videos will also become part of what Gore calls "The Genome": a library of 1,000 slides and counting—rife with disaster porn, bar graphs, and a sizable stash of dad jokes—that he pulls from when preparing for the more than 100 climate-change presentations he gives every year.
Thanks to An Inconvenient Truth, the presentation is now legend: The film was one of the most commercially successful documentaries ever, earning nearly $50 million in worldwide box office. The presentation has also inspired Climate Reality Project's Climate Reality Leadership Corps training: Since 2006, when Gore conducted the first session, 12,000 people from 136 countries have completed the program, becoming what the non-profit calls Climate Reality Leaders, or certified climate-change activists. Including viewers of the film, the activist trainings, the talks at corporate retreats and college lecture halls, the fractured audience for Gore's presentation is vast. But how much can a slideshow do to help change the world?
An Inconvenient Truth has all of the trappings of a traditional narrative documentary—it's "Al's story," as producer Laurie David puts it—with scenes of Gore home on his Tennessee farm and and stories from challenging moments in Gore's life, like the death of his sister Nancy Gore Hunger to lung cancer. These moments lend emotional resonance to Gore's climate activism: As producer Lesley Chilcott says, "It was kind of an opportunity to reveal the real Al, the real man," at a moment when memories of the 2000 presidential campaign—and Bush v. Gore—were still fresh.
But as critic A.O. Scott wrote in a 2006 review for the New York Times, "Appearances to the contrary, Mr. Guggenheim's movie is not really about Al Gore." Rather, as Scott notes in his review, it's about the slideshow. Gore, he says, is "the surprisingly engaging vehicle for some very disturbing information" contained within it.
In An Inconvenient Sequel, the producers swap this personal lens for a dramatic narrative, in which Gore is shown playing a dramatic role in getting India to sign onto the landmark COP21 agreement that was negotiated during the 2015 Paris Climate Change Conference. But the slideshow, and the case Gore makes in it that climate change is both real and beatable, is where the new film's arguments are the strongest. In one scene, Gore references a slide he showed in the 2006 version of the presentation featured in An Inconvenient Truth, which suggested the storm surge from a hurricane could flood the site where the World Trade Center once stood—a prediction that was widely criticized before it came to pass in 2012, when superstorm Sandy sent between 15 and 30 feet of water rushing into the basement of the site.
The presentation's journey to the silver screen began when David saw Gore give a six-minute version of the slideshow in 2004. She was moderating a panel discussion with Gore and the climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer as part of the release for The Day After Tomorrow, Roland Emmerich's climate-change disaster flick, when he gave a mini-presentation. "After that event, I went over to him and said, all I need you to do is show up—give me a date in New York, and a date in L.A.," she said, "and I will get people in the room to see this." After collaborating with Gore on two live events, she was convinced that the presentation had to be a movie. "It's the only way to get the word out to more people."
Of course, a slide deck isn't the most compelling source material for a documentary, but David says it never gave them pause at the time. "Looking back, while we were doing it, we probably should have stopped and thought, Why would a slideshow be a movie?" David says.
In order to adapt the presentation for film, a designer worked with Gore and the filmmakers to establish a more consistent aesthetic, resulting in the patriotic red-and-blue color palette seen in An Inconvenient Truth. Ultimately, the slideshow's content itself, co-creators say, is Gore's creation. (Requests for an interview with Gore were denied.)
Chilcott says he arranged slides during their flights, tailoring the presentation to both its audience and location. When he came to a town to give the talk, Gore "would already have photos from a wildfire that happened two days ago," she says, and he was constantly updating the climate science to reflect the most current data.
"Each slide is like his baby," David says. "He treats each slide like that's the one that's going to make people have their a-ha moment."
It's an almost comic image: Gore, the man "who used to be the next president of the United States," as he jokes in An Inconvenient Truth, scouring the Internet for video clips of natural disasters. But there is a lived-in feel to the performance given by Gore, who seems to have found his feet as a public speaker sometime after the 2000 presidential debates, both on film and in person. He may be a divisive figure—both among climate deniers on the right and a new generation of climate-change activists—but Gore is very compelling, too, and the time he puts into the presentation shows.
Gore doesn't just process new climate science and data on renewable energy in the "hundreds of hours," according to the Climate Reality Project, that he spends working on the presentation every year. Gore also obsesses over minute technical details in Keynote, Apple's version of Powerpoint. Gore makes his own, cinematic decisions about how the presentation itself is cut, how the slides fit together, and how to build dramatic tension with something as mundane as a bar graph. "After you get into the innards of the process, you get to the point where—this will sound ridiculous—but it makes a difference whether a transition is two-tenths of a second or three-tenths of a second," Gore told Grist for a 2016 oral history of An Inconvenient Truth. "And I'll go to 0.15 or 0.175. That is silly, but I do it anyway."
He may be the star of the films, but when it comes to the screen within the screen—Gore's laptop—he's something of a director too.
The degree of Gore's obsession was apparent to me when I saw him give the presentation twice within the span of about a year: once in the summer of 2014, and again about 12 months later. (Full disclosure: at the time I worked for TakePart, a website owned by Participant Media, which produced An Inconvenient Truth; the site was shut down last year.) I had thought that seeing Gore talk for a second time would be a boring rehash of the first, but I was struck at how completely different the presentation was.
The second time around, there was a year's worth of new extreme weather events to take in, including clips of dramatic escapes from floodwaters around the world, and the latest on the California drought and corresponding wildfires. In 2014, there was a whole section on the on-going Ebola outbreak, which barely factored at all in 2015 (in the sequel, Gore discusses Zika). A bar graph that told of the promise of Chile's growing solar industry was, a year later, revised to show the dramatic rise in approved and under-construction projects, the potential gigawatt-hour production numbers shooting up and off the page, dwarfing the scale of any previous year's output. Really, the only thing that was the same was the visual gag in which Gore says he's always been an early adoptee of new tech, and then flicks to the next slide, which shows Gore as a young Congressman from Tennessee, talking on a first-generation cell phone the size of a brick.
Overall, despite the wealth of new footage of 100-year and 500-year storms, the tone of the slideshow is an optimistic one. It's perhaps more so now than when An Inconvenient Truth came out in 2006, and many viewers came away wondering how switching from incandescent to fluorescent light bulbs, as the film recommended to audiences, could save the planet.
Gore makes the case that renewables can and will achieve the kind of sustainable global production scale that we have seen glimpses of in places like Scotland and Germany, which have both powered their grids on majority renewables for brief periods of time. And Gore believes in the classic liberal approach to getting there, through a combination of the wisdom of the markets and government regulation and incentives, like the federal renewable energy tax credit. As the cost of producing electricity from renewable sources continues to drop, and demand for power continues to grow, the markets will pick the wind and sun over coal and natural gas, this logic holds.
The goal is to make renewables dominant, and in Gore’s presentation, climate justice is not about wealth redistribution, but rather parts of the world that were never wired for electricity skipping coal-fired power altogether and going straight to solar. In An Inconvenient Sequel, Gore references Pope Francis’s writing on how the poor will be disproportionately affected by climate change. But Gore and others are relying on the carrot and stick of markets and regulation to solve the climate crisis without adequately addressing the disproportionate capital gains that countries like the United States have made through decades of pollution that have put poor countries at the greatest risk. As Piyush Goyal, India’s power minister, says in An Inconvenient Sequal after Gore encourages his country to pursue solar power in the same way that the U.S. has, “I’ll do the same thing after 150 years.” In other words, India will switch to renewables after it has been able to develop a national economy with the advantage of cheap fossil fuels for as long as the U.S. has.
Gore makes the case that renewables can and will achieve the kind of sustainable global production scale that we have seen glimpses of in places like Scotland and Germany.
But if certain perspectives are under-represented in Gore's telling of what climate change is, and how we can still beat it, that's OK with David Hawkins, the director of the climate program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Gore "may spend more time on the marketplace response and less time on the policy drivers than groups like NRDC spend on trying to influence the policy process," he says. But: "There are many different messages and voices that need to be brought forward in order for us to succeed."
Beyond the many human voices engaged in fighting climate change—the countless scientists, researchers, diplomats, bureaucrats, and activists who work on climate change—there is the environment itself, which appears determined to be heard. On the heels of Harvey and Irma comes yet another major hurricane, Jose, spinning out of the Atlantic. The climate system, Hawkins says, "is going to continue to drive awareness of the extent of this problem."
Although President Donald Trump has pulled the U.S. out of the Paris climate deal, both the business world and state governments, to varying degrees, are taking climate change seriously. Public polling shows that an increasing number of Americans believe that climate change is real. According to Gallup, more Americans than ever—68 percent—believe that human-related activity is causing climate change, up from about 60 in 2005.
"The sort of glib statement is that mother nature laughs last," Hawkins continues. "It is true that the climate system doesn't care what the attitude of recently elected politicians are."
Just 9 percent of Americans are "dismissive" of climate change, while another 11 percent are "doubtful," according to research from Yale University’s Climate Communication Program; 69 percent of registered voters want the U.S. participate in the Paris Climate Agreement. There aren’t too many people overall who still need convincing—although some deniers, like Trump, have an outsized influence on U.S. policy. Besides, even people who are concerned are not talking about global warming, according to another survey by Yale, and say they don't frequently see stories about it in the media.
While the research is still unclear on what, exactly, can change people's minds about climate change, or make people who do believe in it become more engaged with the issue, Gore will keep talking. And just as it is certain that more superlative storms, wildfires, flood, and droughts will follow Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Jose, he will be adding slides featuring these disasters into The Genome, tweaking the transition times, hoping that this clip or this photo will make a difference.